Sacro Monte di Varese is one of the nine sacred mountains of Northern Italy and consists of a holy path and a charming medieval village.
On Saturday I took a day trip to Varese to explore the Sacro Monte, one of the nine sacred mounts lying at the foothills of the Alps. These are devotional paths that were created in the XVI and XVII centuries with the idea of offering an alternative pilgrimage route to that in the Holy Land, which was becoming more and more difficult due to the political events of the time. Their creation was strongly supported also by the Bishops of Milan, who believed that these pilgrimage sites could become a powerful means to repel the influence of the Protestant reform that was spreading in Europe.
In addition to their religious significance, these Sacred Mountains have a rich artistic and architectural value that makes these places appealing even to those without an interest in religion. Also, the paths are harmoniously integrated in the surrounding natural landscape made of gorgeous mountain ranges, woods and lakes, thus creating a peaceful and relaxing escape from the hustle and bustle of the big city. It’s for all these reasons that the Sacred Mounts of Piemonte and Lombardia were registered in the Unesco World Heritage List in 2003.
The Sacro Monte of Varese is located within the the Campo dei Fiori Regional Park and its roots date all the way back to the IV century when Saint Ambrose built a chapel to celebrate the victory against the Arian heresy.
How to get to Sacro Monte di Varese
Reaching the Sacro Monte di Varese is easy and you can visit the site as a day trip from Milan. There are several trains departing from Milano Porta Garibaldi Passante station during the day and reaching Varese in about an hour, you can check the timetable on the Trenitalia website.
Once in Varese, you can catch the city bus Line C from the train station up to the Prima Cappella (First Chapel) bus stop at the beginning of the Chapels Path. You’ll find yourself in a little piazza, just take the stairs and continue to the right, you’ll get to the first chapel in a couple of minutes. The bus ticket costs €1.40, you can buy it in any tabaccheria around town or directly through the machine on the bus (have exact amount ready, no change given).
If you don’t like the idea of climbing all the way up, then consider visiting the Sacro Monte over the weekend, when there’s a convenient funicular service running between the parking lot at the first chapel and the village of Santa Maria del Monte. The funicular opens between 10:00 am and 7:00 pm on Saturdays and Sundays and the ride is included in the bus ticket (if you don’t have a bus ticket, it’s gonna cost you €1).
The closest airport is Milan Malpensa and the drive to Sacro Monte only takes about 45 minutes. You can leave the car at the parking lot near the first chapel. However, I suggest to park in Varese city centre and then catch the bus, as I saw that parking space is pretty limited.
The Chapels’ Trail of Sacro Monte di Varese
The Sacro Monte di Varese consists of a wide, cobbled pathway about 2km long and punctuated by 14 chapels that depict scenes from the life of Jesus and Mary, the so-called Mysteries of the Rosary.
The religious episodes are represented through the use of frescoes and beautiful clay statues. It’s not possible to go inside the chapels, but you can press a button to light up the interior and see the artworks through the windows.
After the 14th chapel there’s a ramp leading to the village and the Sanctuary, containing the 15th and last mystery.
The trail is always accessible and open to the public. It took me about one and a half hours to complete the path and I stopped several times to take pictures and have a break, because it was hot and rather steep in some points. But then, hey, isn’t the way to paradise an uphill climb?!
The village of Santa Maria del Monte
The Chapels’ Trail ends in Santa Maria del Monte, a picturesque village located about 900 metres above sea level. It’s a maze of little cobbled lanes, arcades and flowered balconies that create a truly enchanting atmosphere. There are also some great viewpoints spread around the village offering fantastic views over the Alps and the lakes.
The most important landmark in the village is the Sanctuary of Santa Maria del Monte overlooking Piazza Paolo VI. It’s quite small in size but rich in artistic treasures, with an impressive Baroque marble altar featuring an ancient wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. The origin of this church dates back to the VIII century and later underwent a series of reconstructions and restorations.
Next to the Sanctuary lies the Convent of the Romite Ambrosiane nuns, which was founded by Caterina of Pallanza and Giuliana Puricelli in 1474. Nuns still live here and spend their day praying and studying. Visits to the convent are not allowed though, since the nuns belong to a secluded order.
One thing not to miss when visiting the Sanctuary is the small Crypt carved into rock, where a recent restoration brought to life some fantastic frescoes probably dating back to the XIV and XV centuries, as well as other significant archeological findings.
While wandering through the village, look for the old public wash-house, which was built towards the end of the XIX century to cope with the increasing number of pilgrims flocking to the village.
The museums of Santa Maria del Monte
There are a couple of interesting museums to visit in Santa Maria del Monte. The first one is the Baroffio Museum, right next to the Sanctuary. It’s a little museum created to host the treasures that Baron Giuseppe Baroffio Dall’Aglio left to the Sanctuary upon his death.
It welcomes visitors with a beautiful terrace overlooking the lakes, while inside there are three floors of interesting paintings, sculptures and antique furniture. I particularly liked the Dutch and Flemish paintings, such as the Gypsy with the Tambourine by Michael Sweerts.
Fun fact: in this museum you can even see the remains of a crocodile, who was the protagonist of a curious local fact in the XVIII century!
The other museum in the village is the Pogliaghi Museum, located before the monumental fountain of Moses. Lodovico Pogliaghi was an Italian sculptor and painter who fell in love with the beauty and tranquillity of Santa Maria del Monte while working on the restoration of the chapels in 1885.
He bought some land and built this villa, where he lived until his death, and filled it with an incredible collection of over 1,500 artworks gathered around the world, spanning from Egyptian and Roman artifacts to Chinese vases, sculptures of Giambologna and even a sketch by Bernini. The highlight of the visit is the plaster of the main portal of the Duomo of Milan, that he had been commissioned to design.
Both museums have limited opening times so check them before your trip. They can be visited between 10:00 am and 6:00 pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays. The Baroffio Museum is open also 2:00-6:00 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, while the House-Museum Lodovico Pogliaghi can be accessed also 6:30-10:30 pm on Fridays during the summer.
Places to fuel up after the Chapels’ Trail hike
Santa Maria del Monte is tiny but there are a number of interesting restaurants and cafés to check out. At the end of the holy path, before entering the village, I suggest to take a break at Montorfano, a café and restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the 14th chapel and the surrounding landscape. I must admit that I wasn’t particularly impressed with their service, but sipping a cold juice with that beautiful view in front of me made up for it!
One place you absolutely have to see, even just from the outside, is Al Borducan. It was built in the 1920’s and boasts a super pretty stone façade with cream and green decorations. It offers also lodging and oozes romance and charm – have a look at their website for some beautiful night shots! Oh, and this place has also its own signature liqueur called Borducan, an infusion of herbs and oranges invented here in 1872. Throw away the map and follow the 1920’s tunes you’ll hear in the background – they come from there!
- Expect the Chapels’ Trail and the visit to the village of Santa Maria del Monte to take at least half a day; I suggest to start the hike in the early morning to fully enjoy the peaceful atmosphere of the place
- If you’re planning to visit both the two museums and the crypt (which I highly recommend!), then ask for a combined ticket: it costs €12, while the three single tickets would total €16
- Check the official website of Sacro Monte di Varese for further information and updates: www.sacromontedivarese.it
Until next time,